Washington, DC – Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said he would seek punitive economic sanctions against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other officials in the kingdom if a formal US investigation shows they were involved in killing Jamal Khashoggi.
Graham told Al Jazeera on Thursday that he had read US intelligence that points to the Saudi government’s involvement in the disappearance of the Saudi writer.
“I’ve already seen the intel. It was very unnerving. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure this out,” Graham said.
Deputy State Department Spokesman Robert Palladino said on Wednesday that while he cannot comment on intelligence matters, he could “say definitively the United States had no advance knowledge of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance”.
The comments came a day after the Washington Post – for whom Khashoggi wrote columns – reported that US intelligence had intercepted communications of Saudi officials planning to abduct the prominent journalist and critic.
Khashoggi, who had spent the last year in the United States in self-imposed exile after fleeing Saudi Arabia amid a crackdown on those critical of the kingdom, disappeared on October 2 after entering the Saudi consulate to obtain papers needed for marriage.
According to several media outlets, citing unnamed Turkish sources, police in Turkey believe the writer was killed inside the diplomatic facility. Saudi Arabia maintains Khashoggi left the consulate before disappearing.
Graham said that if the Saudis are implicated the US will need to take a “firm stand”.
“They put us in a bad spot, the Saudis did, and they need to pay a heavy price because I don’t want anybody to be confused about how we feel about stuff like this,” Graham said.
“If it turns out that this man was killed or mistreated by the Saudi government, we expect stuff like this from [Russian President Vladmir] Putin and we come down hard on him when he does it. So, everything we did to Putin, I want to do to Saudi Arabia.”
A bipartisan group of 22 US senators sent a letter to President Donald Trump on Wednesday triggering a US government investigation under the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 sanctions law originally aimed at Russians and expanded by Congress in 2016 to apply globally.
Graham said he believes Trump is taking the correct approach by following the Magnitsky investigative process and, if it’s shown to be the case, he will not tolerate Khashoggi’s killing.
“I would unleash the sanctions from Hades,” Graham said. “I want to make an example of this government if they did this. I don’t want anybody else thinking that if they have an alliance with us we don’t care about values.”
Graham added that he was not satisfied by a conversation yesterday with the Saudi Ambassador in Washington. “I don’t believe anything they say,” Graham told Al Jazeera.
Graham also drew a distinction between reacting to Khashoggi’s death with economic sanctions and curtailing US arms sales to Saudi Arabia or limiting US military support for the war in Yemen.
“The Yemen war is a proxy war with Iran,” Graham said, adding that Yemen and Khashoggi are “two different things,” a sentiment echoed by other Republicans.
On Thursday, Trump said he saw no reason to block Saudi Arabia’s investments in the US.
“They’re [the Saudis] spending $110bn on military equipment and on things that create jobs … for this country,” Trump told reporters outside the White House. “I don’t like the concept of stopping an investment of $110bn into the United States, because you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to take that money and spend it in Russia or China or someplace else.”
The comments drew ire from some in the Senate.
“Everything that we know points to the Saudi government and yet none of us want to jump to conclusions. If I had to bet today, they ordered it, they killed him and probably very high-level people were aware of it,” Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Al Jazeera.
The Magnitsky process, which involves a 120-day investigation, “creates lots of pressure” on the Saudis and the Trump White House, he said.
“We are well aware the administration has a huge political investment in Saudi Arabia as it relates to the whole Middle East peace process,” Corker said.
“We have got to send a signal early on that going around killing journalists is totally inappropriate and if he (bin Salman) has been involved there’s got to be sanctions.”